The competitors Apple and Google want to work together exceptionally in the Corona crisis. They claim that they can track corona contacts without compromising users’ privacy.
Apple and Google usually compete bitterly for every mobile phone user, but the pandemic is bringing manufacturers of the mobile operating systems iOS and Android together, at least for one project. On Good Friday, the two tech groups announced the most far-reaching cooperation in their company’s history. They want to use Bluetooth radio technology to identify contact persons for people infected with Corona without revealing the identity of those involved – regardless of the operating system that runs on the smartphone. Corona infections are to be detected early with the new technology.
This is how it should work: Mobile phones constantly send an identification number (ID) using the Bluetooth technology BLE, which then stores other mobile phones nearby. In retrospect, it can be determined which devices – and therefore in most cases their owners – have been close enough long enough to catch the corona virus. If you test positive for the virus later, you can publish your ID in the system. The devices of those users who have been close to this ID long enough will be notified. For example, you would then be asked to be tested. To ensure privacy anyway, the device IDs are never assigned to a specific person. They are also replaced once a day.
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Interfaces in iOS and Android are to be opened by mid-May, which health authorities can incorporate into their own apps. The respective apps can communicate with both iOS and Android devices via these interfaces. Covid-19 diagnoses must also be confirmed by doctors or laboratories to reduce the risk of false alarms and to deter trolls who want to interfere with the system with deliberate false alarms.
For Android systems from version 6.0 and two thirds of all Apple devices
Not all users have the latest version of iOS or Android installed. Google has declared that it wants to incorporate the update in an absolute basic function of Android, the Google Play Services. This will lead to all Android versions from 6.0 being able to use the technology. According to the TechCrunch website, Apple’s answer to a corresponding demand was evasive: the function would be rolled out on as many devices as possible. In any case, all users of iOS 13 should receive it.
In a second step, Apple and Google want to integrate the Bluetooth tracing function directly into their respective operating systems. Users would then no longer have to download an app, but only consent. This voluntary consent should be a prerequisite for participating in tracing. If the system has confirmed a risk contact, users should also be asked to install an appropriate app from the respective health authorities in their country. According to Apple and Google, only these certified apps should have access to the data.
Doubts about implementation without location data
Cryptography experts like Moxie Marlinspike, developer of the encryption protocol in the messenger signal, are not completely convinced by Apple’s and Google’s design. On the one hand, Marlinspike warns that the advertising industry’s existing Bluetooth tracking infrastructure could collect the IDs and thus find out who is Covid-positive. On the other hand, according to him, the approach of Google and Apple would only be feasible in connection with certain location data. Even if an ID is only a few bytes in size, every device would have to download hundreds of megabytes of ID data every day given the current number of infections, wrote Marlinspike on Twitter. This could only be restricted by using the same location data.
Apple and Google are not the only ones who want to track Corona contacts on citizen cell phones. The tracing method of the two US companies is similar to the approach of the European platform Pepp-PT, which also wants to use Bluetooth to track infection routes. A similar system is also being developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Other apps for monitoring the corona spread transmit GPS data to the authorities, for example in Poland, Israel and South Korea. Mobile operators also share anonymized cell data with the health authority. This multitude of different strategies and platforms could still be a problem, said German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on Tuesday: “It is important that we do not end up with a patchwork of 27 corona apps and 27 data protection regimes, but act as coordinated as possible,” said Maas den Newspapers from the Funke media group.
In particular, establishing contacts using Bluetooth can only work if as large a part of the population as possible uses the system. According to a survey recently carried out by the polling institute Civey for Bavarian Radio, 56 percent of Germans would be willing to install a corona tracing app.
With Bloomberg material